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This article was written by Andrew Hale, who provides a confidential mental health support service to ISCP members. Stress is present in all areas of life, and Andrew explains how we can manage this.

We hear about stress all the time – we see it talked about on the TV, posted about on social media, written about in magazines etc.  However the hardest part can be recognising we are struggling with it ourselves.

Stress is actually a completely normal and important part of our everyday lives. It is stress that motivates us, gets us to work, gets us fed, and even gets us excited.  It is important to note that there is no good or bad stress. We perceive some stress to be worse than others as that is how we cognitively process it, but to the body and the stress system – stress is stress. However, because we are good at ruminating and over-thinking bad things, stress around negativity does in turn have a more damaging impact. The body is actually good at coping with stress. It has a great system of checks and balances that mean we can get stressed, deal with it, and then return to a normal state (a process known as homeostasis).  The problems occur when the stress system gets overloaded and the normal system struggles to regulate itself. Let’s imagine the stress system as a bucket and the stress that goes in it as the water. In a healthy system the bucket fills and then gets drained. If the bucket has little in it, it can take on more and still be ok, as long as there is a draining period before it gets full. Things go wrong when either the bucket is filled quicker than it empties, or if the levels are always so high it takes very little to get the bucket overflowing. We have to look at ways to keep draining that bucket, and also to avoid filling it anymore than we have to. Physical, mental and emotional stress all add to the bucket!

How is your bucket right now? Does it have capacity? Is it having chance to drain nicely? Or is it quite full – or even overflowing?

Below are 10 points that might help to manage that bucket.

  1. Take ownership. This is a huge psychological principal. It means taking personal responsibility for not only what you do, but how you feel. When I realise I am filling my bucket more than I need to because I have not left any time for ME in my schedule, the first thing to do is take ownership of that. If I didn’t, I could easily start blaming or even resenting my clients. Try and recognise where the stress is coming from, take ownership and then if needs be take action.
  2. Make GOOD human connections – and use them! Having a good social and support network is crucial. Having partners you can rely on to take some of the slack for you, friends who can lend a good ‘ear’ when needed or work colleagues you trust and can delegate to. When you have those good people around you – use them! It is so hard for many of us to ask for help, but creating a supportive network around us is pointless if we don’t let them help and support us. Learning to ask for help, to delegate tasks and spread the load is so important in keeping that bucket drained.
  3. Create some balance. On a regular basis step back from life and reassess it. Think about what you HAVE to do, NEED to do and WANT to do. Have to do and need to do – these really need consideration. Actually there is very little we HAVE to do, the rest is what we need to do, but even then do we really need to do it! So much stress is caused by the NEED to do stuff – and guess what? Most of it doesn’t NEED to be done NOW! Or even tomorrow. Or sometimes ever. A healthy balance should be – make sure you do the real HAVE to do, make lots of time for the WANT to do, and then constantly re-evaluate the NEED to do.
  4. Be organised A lot of my friends comment on how organised I am. I have lists for everything, weekly schedules, and various filing systems in place. What they don’t know is that I am instinctively a disorganised I used to fill my bucket so quickly by double booking clients, not being able to find notes and going week after week without giving myself any time with loved ones. Now I have a schedule, a filing system and a notebook that I ALWAYS have on me. I put everything in there – reminders, things to do, calls to make etc. It hasn’t come naturally but being organised has, for me, been one of the biggest bucket drainers.
  5. ‘It is what it is’. This one phrase has helped relieve me of stress SO many times. It has become something of a mantra. When you know you are not in a position to deal with something, not in control enough of the situation to change it, or the bucket is simply too full right now, this is the saying for you. IT IS WHAT IT IS – this is acknowledging that some things can’t be changed, or will have to wait until another day. The more we try to develop a pragmatic outlook the less that bucket will fill.
  6. Saying ‘NO’. This is a biggy! Agreeing to everything, not wanting to let others down, being afraid to upset others – often this boils down to being unable to say no. For most people this inability to say that little word can be a huge bucket filler, and I will be honest – it is something I find really hard myself. Reality is this though – if we say Yes to more than our bucket can carry we WILL suffer down the line. If saying No outright is extra hard for you then think of other ways to say it. For example I often use – ‘I am really sorry but I have other commitments at the moment, but please ask again in the future’.
  7. Be aware of new challenges/commitments. Life often brings us new opportunities, new challenges – some we look for, some are sprung on us. Some of these will bring big positives, but some will just add too much stress. So, the general rule about taking on anything new is to try and ‘stress test’ it. This might be building any new time commitments into your schedule – how does it look on paper? Sit back and think about how you might feel taking this new thing on- will it give more than it takes? Ideally, if possible, try not to commit to anything new long term – agree to do it for a few weeks and then you can make a more definite commitment once you know it’s do-able
  8. Shed some skin. Just like a snake, we sometimes need to shed old skin. Over time we change, our needs change and so do our expectations. Allow yourself the chance to shed some old skin from time to time – that might mean stopping some activities, starting new ones or distancing yourself from certain people who have started to add stress not remove it. Nothing fills the bucket more than feeling stuck in a rut or surrounded by the wrong people. Give yourself permission to shed some skin!
  9. YOU come first. For many of us this is such a hard principal to adopt. Jean Donaldson uses the phrase ‘Save the trainer’ and it is such a good way to see things. If you are not functioning well, if that bucket is getting full or overflowing, you can’t do as much for others, look after your clients the way you should be, or give your family the time they need, etc. In this context putting yourself first is not a selfish thing – it is what we HAVE to do in order to be the caring, giving and supportive person we strive to be. Also – It is good to offer support and to encourage others, but watch out for getting sucked into situations beyond your control!
  10. Be vulnerable. It is ok to be vulnerable. It is ok to acknowledge that you struggle sometimes. None of us are super human. It is always the case that those of us that just get on with things create a perception in others that we must be ok as we always seem to cope. We don’t always cope! It is so important to let people know that. It is NOT a sign of weakness. Sometimes we HAVE to say NO, we have to say ‘Sorry, now is not a good time’. When we are really at breaking point we HAVE to let the world know we need some help, some time to let that bucket drain. If you can’t tell a loved one or a colleague, then tell someone. Trust me, so much relief comes from uttering those first few words ‘I’m struggling to cope right now’. There are ALWAYS options and there is ALWAYS help.